Snap, heckle and scoff

Chapter Three of Fifty Shades of Grey is extremely boring.

I’ll break it down for you. You know that photoshoot they arranged while Christian was doing his American Psycho routine in the hardware store last chapter? You don’t? Oh well. That happens, anyway. This is how things go in this book. They talk about doing stuff, then they do that stuff, then they talk about some more stuff and do that and so on. There are no other plot threads – just this one, and it slouches miserably along from one thing to another. Some people take pictures of Christian and then Ana and Christian have coffee, except she doesn’t have coffee she has tea because she doesn’t like coffee and she has English Breakfast Tea, bag out and zzzzzzzzzz…

I don’t know about you, but this isn’t the kind of teabagging I was expecting to hear about in a dirty book.

Kate is ecstatic. “But what was he doing at Clayton’s?” Her curiosity oozes through the phone.

That, on the other hand, is fucking filthy. If you can ooze telephonically then you’d do well to take your curiosity down to the clap clinic. Yikes.

So, yes. I’m afraid it’s all incredibly dull aside from Kate’s mysterious ooze. It’s just the usual inane ‘Oh no, does he like me do I like him why are my panties moist’ drivel – for another chapter. Sorry about that. We’ll just have to talk about something interesting instead.

Lesson Six – FUCK YEAH! DIALOGUE TAGS!

No, don’t look at me like that. Dialogue tags are fascinating. They really are. Adverbs, said-bookisms – it’s a non-stop thrill ride.

Look, this is the alternative.

“Miss Steele, we meet again.” Grey extends his hand, and I shake it, blinking rapidly. Oh my…he really is, quite…wow. As I touch his hand, I’m aware of that delicious current running right through me, making me blush, and I’m sure my erratic breathing must be audible.

See? You can’t expect me to parse this mess. It’s barely even English.

So. Dialogue tags.

Chapter three is a dialogue heavy chapter. Most of the dialogue is bad because Christian is Edward Cullen and consequently talks like a sheltered Mormon housewife’s idea of a sexy Fin de Siecle vampire. To anyone who has spent time around human beings he just sounds like a pompous dickhead.

And obviously Ana doesn’t have anything interesting to say because she’s Bella Swan and when she opens her mouth it’s to say things like “My mother has had lots of husbands. I like books.” The only consolation is that is that it’s a lot better than her internal monologue, which basically goes ohmygodhessohotandimsomousyohmygodohmygod.

This gets quite tiresome after about five minutes.

The dialogue is rendered even worse by a heavy-handed garnish of some unlikely said-bookisms.

 Said-Bookisms

Said-bookisms are basically substitutes for the word ‘said’ in dialogue. At one time they were quite fashionable and people in novels exclaimed, expostulated and even ejaculated with alarming regularity. These days they’re largely frowned upon as a sign of sloppy, mauvish writing.

Some beginners bust out the said-bookisms because they’re worried about too many saids on the page. Don’t worry about that. They don’t call it the Invisible Said for no reason. Readers eyes slide off saids – they’re par for the course. They’re much more likely to react strongly if your characters are all bellowing, howling and grunting like the residents of Regent’s Park Zoo. There is a magic trick for radically reducing the number of saids but I’ll show you that later. Instead let’s see how exuberantly E.L. James screws the pooch.

In chapter three there are seven incidences of the word ‘says’ used as a dialogue tag. Not bad, you might think, but wait.

There are eleven asks, six murmurs, five mutters and a scoff. Characters also snap, prompt, whisper, cry, groan, snort, speculate and shrug. When they’re not doing that they’re also nodding, announcing, smiling, begging, breathing, demanding, retaliating, calling, sighing, squeaking and finishing off with an unlikely but interesting blurt.

My list of said-bookisms ended up a thing of surreal beauty. Not only did it contain more mutters than a Dusseldorf mother and toddler group and enough murmurs to interest a passing cardiologist, the mixture of snap, squeak and scoff left it looking like the world’s weirdest advertisement for Rice Krispies.

Now, some of these aren’t entirely terrible. People occasionally snap. Sometimes they scoff and even blurt. Nobody sane is going to tar and feather you for an occasional ‘ask’ even if the question mark in the dialogue renders it redundant. Not all said-bookisms are evil. Sometimes they even add colour and variation to a page, but they’re one of those things that’s best in extreme moderation, sort of like saturated fats.

The said-bookisms that get people’s backs up tend to be the ones that are physically impossible. Take the last sentence and shrug it. Smile it. Nod it.

Difficult, isn’t it? It’s so much easier if you just say it.

Adverbs 

Adverbs are the ly words that hang off the back of saids – softly, bitterly, angrily etc. Sometimes they’re useful, other times they’re a fast track to absurdity.

“What, Christian?” I snap irritably after he says – nothing.

See what I mean? You can always combine an adverb with a said-bookism for extra redundancy. If she’s snapping we can infer that she’s irritable – we don’t need to be spoon fed.

Of course, you can also be silly with a simple said.

“Did you come by train?”  he said, inquisitively.

In this case the question itself renders ‘inquisitively’ useless.

Adverbs are best used to qualify speech when you want the tone of what’s being said to contradict the actual content.

“If you don’t sit quiet and finish your vegetables I will tear off your head and piss down the neckhole,” Aunt Iphigenia said sweetly.

How To Avoid Said Altogether 

Here’s the magic trick. Do you want to know how you can write dialogue without worrying you’re using too many saids, and worrying that your said-anxiety is leading you off the straight and narrow and making you do dirty, inappropriate things with adverbs and said-bookisms?

Course you do. The alternative is blurting, and nobody wants that.

Like most magic tricks it’s so simple it’s almost sad, but learning to perform it beautifully can take a lifetime of practise.

I’m talking about character voice, that sleight of authorial hand which makes one character’s dialogue distinct from another’s.

Jane Austen was brilliant at this. Terry Pratchett is also something of a modern master of this art. If you removed all tags from his dialogue and just read it straight the chances are that even if you didn’t know the characters you would ‘hear’ the distinct voices of Gytha Ogg vs. Esme Weatherwax, or Vimes and Vetinari. They have their own turns of phrase, rhythms, speech patterns and catchphrases. Pratchett is also a great one for a good, unvarnished said, although occasionally some of his characters bark and bellow. But they’re allowed to – they’re wizards.

However, if you are looking to learn from one of the most brilliant dialogue writers ever to breathe oxygen, then run, don’t walk to the nearest P.G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse used surprisingly few dialogue tags despite a huge volume of dialogue, basically because his character voices are just that good. The slow, stately tones of Jeeves contrast with the excitable, verbose Bertie Wooster. Languid Drones, marauding aunts, nervous fiances and red-faced American millionaires all give distinct voice.

Perhaps the most intimidating thing about Wodehouse is when you realise that his sparkling dialogue is not only providing laughs and flawlessly framing character but it’s also performing the heavy lifting work and facilitating some of the most intricate comedy plots in fiction.

‘We part, then, for the nonce, do we?’

‘I fear so, sir.’

‘You take the high road, and self taking the low road, as it were?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I shall miss you, Jeeves.’

‘Thank you, sir.’

‘Who was that chap who was always beefing about gazelles?’

‘The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well, it was sure to die.’

‘It’s the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don’t mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?’

‘Not at all, sir.’

See what I mean? You will never be this good.

On the other hand, with a bit of luck, some good books and a stiff following breeze you may never be this bad.

“Shit, Ana!” Grey cries. He tugs the hand that he’s holding so hard that I fall back against him just as a cyclist whips past, narrowly missing me, heading the wrong way up this one-way street.

This is the one line in chapter three in which something nearly happens – Ana nearly gets run over by a bicycle. She doesn’t, of course, because that would be unduly exciting for the reader and everyone knows if readers get too excited they start setting fire to their own heads for the sheer dumb thrill of it, or daubing rude graffiti on the library walls. Maybe. I don’t know. Three chapters into this book and I’ve already forgotten what excitement feels like. I think it’s probably something to do with the fact that our neurasthenic heroine spends so much time describing how much she’s quivering and shivering and trembling and gasping and verbing and run-on sentencing that I am numbed to all descriptions of excitement. She must be waist deep in her own panty-pudding by now and he hasn’t even so much as kissed her.

But wait, what light from yonder paragraph breaks? Could something else be about to happen?

Like any good romance heroine, Ana has fallen into Christian’s arms.

He has one arm around me, clasping me to him, while the fingers of his other hand softly trace my face, gently probing, examining me. His thumb brushes my lower lip, and I hear his breath hitch. He’s staring into my eyes, and I hold his anxious, burning gaze for a moment or maybe it’s forever…but eventually my attention is drawn to his beautiful mouth. Oh my. And for the first time in twenty one years, I want to be kissed. I want to feel his mouth on me.

And here the chapter ends, because you don’t deserve more than one significant event per chapter, even if the other significant event was not-being-hit-by-a-bicycle and wasn’t really significant. If authors start spoiling you demanding hoardes with too many events you’ll start demanding plot; and well-rounded characters and interesting situations. And then we’ll all be in trouble.

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